President Barack Obama made headlines months ago when he installed controversial nominees to key government positions, bypassing the U.S. Senate by declaring the Senate in recess so that Senate confirmation was not needed. Today a federal appeals court signaled that it might rule Obama’s move unconstitutional, and remove those officials from power.

The U.S. Constitution says that Congress can by statute allow minor government players—“inferior officers”—to be appointed by the president, by Cabinet officers, or by the courts. But high-level administrative officials—called “principal officers”—must be nominated by the president, then confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

But the Senate isn’t always around; for part of each year, senators are back in their home states. So the Framers of the Constitution included the Recess Appointments Clause, allowing presidents to make temporary appointments during Senate recesses. Such appointments last until the end of the following calendar year, meaning appointments made in January 2012 last through December 2013.

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